As news emerged that downtown's busiest street was being cleared of street vendors, Eihab Boraie hit the scene to find out exactly what was happening, only to be met with eerie silence.
Before the 1950s, Talaat Harb Street was known as Soliman Pasha Street, but after Nasser became president all reminders of the Mohammed Ali Dynasty were cleared off the street and it was renamed. Today the government finds itself clearing the streets again, but this time the intention isn’t to change street names and remove statues, but rather the many illegal street vendors that occupy it sidewalk.
Located in the heart of Downtown, Talaat Harb Street is notorious for the many shops offering knock-off clothes and accessories at very cheap prices. Illegally set up on the sidewalks in front of licensed shops, offering items at half the price as the stores they block, they have become somewhat of a nuisance to business owners. Adding to the frustrations are cars being forced into double and sometimes even triple parking, causing an unacceptable amount of congestion that often traps vehicles on the street for hours. The situation has been dire for quite some time, as the congested streets make it impossible to take a comfortable stroll in historic Downtown Cairo.
Deciding to crack down on all these vendors, the government sent out an army of police officers today to clear Talaat Harb Steet, 26 July Street and the Downtown area of its street vendors and relocate them to the Torgoman parking complex near Attaba. Hearing about this, we head down to Taalat Harb Street and ask people on the streets what they think.
Arriving at the scene was very nerve wrecking, as both sides were lined with police trucks filled with officers, suspicious microbuses and what appeared to be undercover officers ‘innocently’ hanging outside the open shop doors. Everyone was armed and many wore ski masks, which only made the emptied streets seem scarier. It was obvious no photos were to be taken and anyone who pulled out a camera was stopped and questioned. Looking to avoid arrest, we decided to try to get into a building on the street and take a picture from an apartment. It seemed that every building we went into had either a uniformed or undercover officer inside. Being able to distinguish can be tricky, but usually the walkie talkies on their belts are dead giveaways.
Needless to say they were prepared, probably more concerned about a sniper looking for a nest. Seeing the streets empty of vendors was surreal, but at no point in time did we actually see anyone forced off the street, as it seemed that vendors were expecting their presence. I assumed that we would arrive and find merchandise strewn everywhere and carts smashed, but neither the photographer nor I witnessed anything of the sort.
Many declined to talk with us, but with a bit or persistence and a lot of patience we would eventually find a koshk owner, Mamdouh Mounir, willing to speak up. “These illegal street vendors are poor people that have homes and children to look after and it's the responsibility of the country to offer them jobs so they can eat. The places the country provided for them to sell their goods were in remote areas where nobody is passing by to buy anything,” explains Mounir. Working in the same location for the past 40 years, he's witnessed the area getting worse with each passing year, reaching a new low after the revolution. “After the revolution the number [of street vendors] increased a lot and that was what attracted the government's attention because some of them have been working here for 30 years. They don't fear anything, unlike before the revolution when they used to run away and hide when they heard that the cops are coming to take their stuff."
In talking with him, I found it interesting that he wants them out of the area, but feels for their them and believes that “the country should take care of them so that they aren’t just added to the unemployed crowd.” Meanwhile he insists that “there should always be someone to watch over this area to get rid of the street vendors or they will keep coming.”
Determined to come back with some photos, I pulled out my phone, took some quick shots, and immediately overheard officers telling their superiors that I took a photo. Pretending not to understand or acknowledge what they were saying we jumped into a cab and got out of there. Thankfully, we weren’t arrested, though it seemed almost guaranteed.
The consensus on the streets from the people I talked to would suggest that this action has been long overdue, and was necessary, but at the same time, those same people believe that as soon as the police leave that the illegal vendors will return. Only time will tell if that will be the case, but at the very least security forces are trying to do something. Mohammed the taxi driver that got us out of there sums it up best: “We are moving forward and at the end of the day this is better, but they have to provide a place where they can sell their goods. All anyone cares about is finding a way to live. Anything and everything is possible here, but it will only start to happen if all the Egyptians decide to take care and love one another.”